This week’s post is by guest-blogger, and monster movie fan, Robert Mullin. Enjoy!
There can’t be many people out there who don’t at least recognize Godzilla. With a film history spanning sixty years and thirty films, Godzilla is in rarefied air with other globally recognizable icons like Superman, Popeye, Mickey Mouse and Tintin. But if you are perhaps not familiar with Godzilla at all, he is an extremely large lizard monster that is awakened by nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean and wreaks havoc on Japanese cities with his enormous size and nuclear breath. Sure, it sounds silly when it is summed up like that, but the original film had a powerful impact on a post-war Japan. Needless to say, the character really took off and spawned many sequels and became part of the pop culture of the 20th century. We now have Hollywood banking rather successfully on the name Godzilla, because anything that already has brand awareness makes their job easier. Now then, on to the review of this reboot of Godzilla at the hands of the American filmmakers, but word of warning: there are going to be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film yet, skip down to the bottom of this review and read the conclusion in which I will outline why you might want to consider seeing this film or not. You’ve been warned.
The opening credits of the movie explain part of the origin story of Godzilla himself, highlighting stock footage of nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific that are now revealed to be attempts to kill Godzilla. The credits end and we’ve made the jump from 1954 bomb tests in the Pacific to 1999 in the Philippines. We are then introduced to Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, played by Ken Watanabe, who works for a group called Project Monarch that are investigating a collapsed mine in the Philippines. Inside, they find two large eggs, one that is intact and the other which has hatched and made it to the sea. Meanwhile, Janjira nuclear plant engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche), who is also some kind of nuclear engineer, are investigating possible damage to the plant. Suddenly, what were slight tremors erupt into an earthquake which damages the plant core. Joe Brody ends up sealing off the contaminated levels to prevent the nuclear radiation from poisoning the entire region and, in the process, seals his wife Sandra inside to perish with her team.
This becomes the catalyst that drives the best human story in the film, as Joe Brody doesn’t believe the earthquake story that is used to cover up what exactly caused the earthquake that compromised the Janjira plant and killed his wife. Jump forward fifteen years and we see Joe Brody’s son, Ford Brody, arriving home in San Francisco after demobilizing with his explosive disposal unit. Upon arriving home, he receives a phone call that his father has been arrested in Japan for illegally crossing the contamination zone surrounding the nuclear plant that was destroyed. After getting bailed out, Joe Brody tells his son that he believes that the official story about an earthquake causing the Janjira meltdown is a cover up and that he has evidence to prove it at his old house inside the contamination zone. Together, they go to their old home, but are captured by a military patrol. They discover that the contamination zone actually was a cover up and the nuclear plant was destroyed by a creature evolved to feed on nuclear energy. The creature has formed a cocoon around the nuclear core and is feeding off of the radiation and growing. Without warning, a massive winged insect-like creature emerges and wreaks havoc before flying away. During this encounter, Joe Brody is fatally wounded and promptly dies, leaving Ford Brody to carry the rest of the movie as our main human character. The creature is named MUTO by the military (standing for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and begins flying east toward the United States.
Aboard aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa fills Ford Brody in on the real reason for all of the nuclear tests in the pacific during the 50’s: the military was, of course, trying to kill Godzilla. He goes on to explain that Godzilla and the MUTO are alpha predators from billions of years ago that feed on radiation and as the radiation on the surface subsided, they moved closer to the Earth’s core. But with mankind’s prolific use of radiation as a source for energy and weapons, these creatures are surfacing again. It is confirmed that a second MUTO is already in the US and it’s the mate of the Janjira plant MUTO. At this time, the US Navy spots Godzilla following the first MUTO and concludes they will meet in San Francisco. Needless to say, the Navy is correct and Godzilla confronts the two MUTO creatures in San Francisco and a giant monster battle ensues.
Godzilla 2014 doesn’t have a complicated story or terribly compelling and deep characters. You would be understandably disappointed if you saw the trailer before seeing the film and were looking forward to Bryan Cranston being the main character. Unfortunately, Cranston’s screen time in the trailer is disproportionate to his screen time in the actual movie. Instead, our main human interest character is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who isn’t terrible by any means, but lacks all of the emotionally convincing cues the audience is treated to in the first third of the film thanks to Cranston. Juliette Binoche also turns in a stellar performance and is an interesting character but has even less screen time than Cranston. I guess the studio didn’t want great performances and characters we might care about to distract audiences from the mighty Godzilla. And that approach ultimately wouldn’t be a bad take if they had put more Godzilla in the movie. Instead, for much of the first two thirds of the movie whenever Godzilla is going to fight a MUTO or smash a building, the film cuts to a scene of a regular person reacting or simply jumps to different characters watching it unfold on television. We get to see Godzilla through a regular person’s perspective but the human characters aren’t interesting enough for this to work. Thankfully, this approach is abandoned about two thirds into the movie and audiences get what is one of the finest displays of Godzilla in the character’s history. Up until that payoff, the movie does drag in places. But the payoff is so full of the joy of the character that I can’t help but feel that this movie accomplished what it set out to do.
Ultimately, if you aren’t a fan of Godzilla, this movie isn’t going to convert you. But if you even have the faintest fond memory of being a kid and watching the Toho Godzilla films, then this will appeal to you immensly. I have always liked monster movies, so I am by no means unbiased. But I do always try to judge a movie by looking at what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish and then attempting to determine whether he was able to do that. Gareth Evans and the rest of the people involved in making this film, accomplished what they set out to do and rebooted a beloved character for children and adults alike. In a movie landscape where dark and gritty takes on characters I cared about growing up are taking away the very elements that made me like those characters in the first place, Godzilla stands apart.